Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25 (1992)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

No. 90-1846. Argued February 24, 1992—Decided May 4, 1992

Respondent Hernandez, a prisoner proceeding pro se, filed five civil rights suits in forma pauperis against petitioner California prison officials, alleging, inter alia, that he was drugged and homosexually raped 28 times by various inmates and prison officials at different institutions. Finding that the facts alleged appeared to be wholly fanciful, the District Court dismissed the cases under 28 U. S. C. 1915(d), which allows courts to dismiss an in forma pauperis complaint "if satisfied that the action is frivolous." Reviewing the dismissals de novo, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded three of the cases. The court's lead opinion concluded that a court can dismiss a complaint as factually frivolous only if the allegations conflict with judicially noticeable facts and that it was impossible to take judicial notice that none of the alleged rapes occurred; the concurring opinion concluded that Circuit precedent required that Hernandez be given notice that his claims were to be dismissed as frivolous and a chance to amend his complaints. The Court of Appeals adhered to these positions on remand from this Court for consideration of the Court's intervening decision in Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U. S. 319, which held that an in forma pauperis complaint "is frivolous [under 1915(d)] where it lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact," id., at 325.

Held: 1. The Court of Appeals incorrectly limited the power granted the courts to dismiss a frivolous case under 1915(d). Section 1915(d) gives the courts "the unusual power to pierce the veil of the complaint's factual allegations and dismiss those claims whose factual contentions are clearly baseless." Id., at 327. Thus, the court is not bound, as it usually is when making a determination based solely on the pleadings, to accept without question the truth of the plaintiff's allegations. However, in order to respect the congressional goal of assuring equality of consideration for all litigants, the initial assessment of the in forma pauperis plaintiff's factual allegations must be weighted in the plaintiff's favor. A factual frivolousness finding is appropriate when the facts alleged rise to the level of the irrational or the wholly incredible,


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